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I was recently on a 15-25 person group ride in the US (where traffic is on the right-hand side of the road) where the following happened:

At the start of a short descent on a low-trafficked road, the lead rider (Rider A) sat up and rotated off the front (towards the middle of the road), at which point the rest of the group (single file for the front few riders, 2-3 wide for the rest) picked up speed and continued down the descent on Rider A's right side. Rider A continued to coast along the far left side of the lane (alongside the double yellow lane paint) as the rest of the group passed them.

As the rear of the group passed Rider A on the descent, a rider near the back of the group (Rider B) passed Rider A on Rider A's left, thereby crossing into the oncoming traffic lane to pass them.

At the next regroup point, Rider B scolded Rider A for coasting on the descent, saying by doing so, they had no safe option but to cross the double yellow to pass. Rider A countered by saying that since Rider A stayed to the far left and held their line while coasting it was no different than a normal paceline, so it was Rider B's responsibility to pass in a safe manner.

Was either rider correct? What should each rider have done in this situation?

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    you're rider A aren't you
    – Swifty
    Jun 15 at 21:48
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    @Swifty - I wanted to make it as neutral and unbiased as I could, but you are correct.
    – Ealhmund
    Jun 15 at 22:26
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    Rider B is solely responsible for Rider B's actions. If Rider B doesn't like to cross the yellow line (they shouldn't unless sight lines are very good), then Rider B needs to look in the mirror and mouth off to that rider
    – Paul H
    Jun 15 at 22:48
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    @Michael the context here appears to be not just a group ride as in several riders out together, not even a loose bunch with aero benefits (as I'm used to) but a paceline, which has its own etiquette and safety procedures. Note "rotated off the front": that's standard in that the former front rider moves out wide and drops to the back
    – Chris H
    Jun 16 at 7:59
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    @ChrisH - it was your typical spirited shop ride (at least ime); not as drilled as a team paceline and not as loose as a couple riders out together, but something in between. Some riders pushing the pace on/off the front in a paceline, with others behind them either content to sit in the draft or just trying to hang on until the next regroup.
    – Ealhmund
    Jun 16 at 11:32

4 Answers 4

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Summary

If the description above is accurate, Rider A operated their bicycle correctly, and gave enough clearance to riders still in the paceline.

Remembering that we weren't there in person, there may be some aspects of the ride to improve on. It is generally better for the entire group to be either single or double file. The OP indicated in comments that this was a relatively fast but casual shop ride. It does take time and effort to organize a group of riders, so I realize that this isn't a no-cost action. However, I would respectfully recommend quickly briefing riders on expected behavior before the ride. During the ride, anyone associated with the shop should exercise that authority to try to get the group more organized if they straggle too much - note that it doesn't have to be military-level organization, just setting basic expectations. If you are intending for the ride to have fast sections, it is important that people have a basic sense of how to act in those situations.

It's possible that Rider B simply isn't familiar with usual behavior in pacelines. I suspect that with the decline of road racing, more and more people on group rides might not be very familiar to them. Newer riders, or riders just not experienced with pacelines, should err on the side of observing the group's behavior and copying the norms. Naturally, if the group is behaving too riskily, you should consider dropping out from the ride. Also, in many areas there should be group rides that are smaller or slower paced where you can learn the norms. It may be worth searching these out if you need a place to learn first.

A more detailed explanation

In the group rides I've operated in, which have included fast group rides of this size or larger, the person pulling off does coast to the back. If the norm were not to coast but to brake after pulling off, you would have to sprint to catch back on. Accelerating is energy-intensive. On a fast group ride, you would probably be depleting your (limited) anaerobic capacity to catch back on if you did this. So, if the norm were to brake after pulling off instead of coasting, that would be a recipe for short group rides with a lot of people dropping off.

While Rider B's reaction was wrong, it is entirely possible that they simply did not know better. My perception is that there's been a bit of a decline in cycling clubs, at least in the US. It may be related to the decline in road racing. The latter is neither good nor bad by itself, but if fewer people are racing, then there may be less impetus for organized clubs. Clubs, however, are one major site to learn riding skills.

For ride organizers, it's worth referring to @Criggie's answer as potential best practices for group riding. If the ride is organized by the shop, then there's a clear authority and thus a reasonable basis for the ride leader to step up and say we are doing A, B, and C. I would recommend that leaders set basic expectations. If the group's formation starts to get more scattered (e.g. people get to 3 or more abreast), I'd recommend that you and/or others take efforts to restore formation, e.g. verbally asking riders to do so or move ahead to fill in gaps.

In less organized situations, e.g. century rides/Gran Fondos, you have the problem that there isn't a clear authority, and people may be at their cognitive limits due to physical effort. In this case, if you sense that riders around you are not operating safely, you should strongly consider dropping back (or sprinting to the group ahead). You can consider engaging verbally, but you will need to remember that at effort, your speech could come out (or be perceived as) hostile or patronizing. You are not guaranteed to actually get the correct message across. Thus, it may be less wrong to disengage.

Recommendations for riders new to fast group rides

Fast group rides are fun, but they demand more than just aerobic capacity. You do need some minimum level of skill to operate safely. Remember that it's not just you, others are relying on you to know the basic scripts.

For riders new to group rides entirely, or even if you're just rusty: I'd recommend you step in slowly, and to generally observe and follow the group's norms. I want to acknowledge that in other contexts, people are pushing back on gatekeeping. Gatekeeping is not always socially desirable, but it depends on the context and the tradeoffs. Some cyclists have, in the past, pushed back on what they perceive as lesser riders (e.g. newer, or less physically fit, or not a 'racey' position) riding expensive bikes and equipment. I think this is undesirable on balance. With fast group rides, if you crash, both you and an unknown number of other people may be crashing at a fairly high speed! Thus, you do need to accept some gatekeeping in this specific case. Hopefully, there are a variety of rides at your ability level in your area. Consider shopping around for a slower or smaller ride if you aren't at the level of the ride you want, or if you need practice.

One thing to be aware of is that under physical or psychological stress, we can get tunnel vision which impairs our ability to perceive the full situation, e.g. the location of other riders on the road. I have a feeling this might have affected Rider B. You become less vulnerable to tunnel vision with practice. If you are in a situation where the group ride is a bit fast for you, do be aware that you don't have to take a pull on the front. When it's your turn to pull, you can take a short pull, or even pull off immediately (if in a double paceline, let the other rider know; they will usually stay in their place and the rider behind you will advance). Alternatively, you can generally hang out nearer the rear, and let riders rotating off go in front of you (just let a gap form gradually, and tell the other person to go in front of you). I'm not sure if this might have helped Rider B, but it's worth mentioning.

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    There may have been some legitimate reason that Rider B couldn't pass on the right Even if so, there are these things called "brakes". Rider B was overtaking Rider A - it's on Rider A to hold his line and it's on Rider B to ride safely. If Rider A is coasting to rotate to the rear - there's nothing wrong with that, full stop. IMO you're being too nice to the passing rider. Jun 15 at 23:12
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    "Cycling in groups is a skill... some people perceive that newer cyclists aren't getting introduced to good group riding skills" is very true and comes down in part to what sort of group. Going from a crowd that sometimes form an informal bunch into the wind or on a fast stretch, to a paceline doing it properly is a big step. I ride in the former category at most - long distance not racing - but have had a couple of sessions with someone talking through the proper method. This group sounds like a mixture of people like me and people doing it properly - not good at speed
    – Chris H
    Jun 16 at 8:09
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Apologies, this answer is somewhat at a tangent (Weiwen Ng already gave a great answer).

Irrespective of who is technically right or wrong from an etiquette standpoint, Rider B can resolve this in several ways without resorting to passing on the other side of the road.

When around other riders communication is important. Rider B can choose to let Rider A know he is passing on the inside if he feels that is an unusual manoeuvre. Rider B can also inform Rider A if/when it is safe to move back in.

Or finally if he doesn't feel safe, then Rider B can choose to sit on the wheel and wait for a better time to overtake.

It doesn't really matter whether it's a group ride, a football team, a computer gaming 'raid' or a project at work. When doing an activity with a group of people the result is nearly always better with a little communication.

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Riding with others is very much a Trust-Fall exercise. If anyone doesn't gel with your group, it can cause issues with the dynamic and that can grow into full-on accidents.

Sometimes it's best to set some ground rules or expectations before departing. For example most of our group rides follow these rules:

  • route is described generally to everyone
  • group stays together, we stop for red lights and flats
  • climbs are at your own pace
  • regroup at the top (or nominated spot like "the fountain" )
  • descents are never a race and often result in spreading out. We'd rarely end up with a paceline heading down a descent, though undulating terrain would be normal
  • again, regroup at the bottom, or push on and maintain momentum till some convenient stop/cafe etc.
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Generally speaking, on a descent, everyone is on their own. Some riders like to tuck and bomb descents, others like to sit up and coast. Most are somewhere in between. Just like cars on a multilane highway, slower traffic should stay to the right. Faster traffic passes on the left.

It sounds like your group was trying to run a paceline down a descent, which is hard to do, because on a descent, most riders will naturally back off the rider ahead of them to add space for maneuvering as the speed increases. The paceline will stretch out and it won't really be a paceline anymore.

By my interpretation, it makes sense that rider A, whose shift at the front was probably up, pulled off as the descent began. I think that was a mistake. Rider A should have stayed where they were and let whoever wanted to go faster pass them on the left. By pulling off and closing down the passing lane, rider A has prevented anyone else from coming out and riding the descent at a different speed. That's why rider B eventually has to go around rider A.

I'm sure all rider A was thinking was that my shift is done, I'm tired, and I'm pulling off. Yes, but not when you are starting a descent. Once you start going downhill, it will take less effort to maintain your current speed, so you can ease up a bit. If the road is steep enough, you can even coast, as long as you don't slow down. The pack behind is doing the same, so stay where you are and let the situation sort itself out. Riders who want to go faster will pass you. Riders who don't will stay behind. Enjoy the descent, and when the paceline reforms at the bottom, grab the back position.

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    This may depend on the descent. The context implies that this was a relatively short and shallow one where it’s feasible and arguably preferred to stay together. For an extended and/or steep descent, I’d agree.
    – Weiwen Ng
    Jun 16 at 15:43
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    Rider A should have stayed where they were and let whoever wanted to go faster pass them on the left. Won't work in a paceline situation, and being in a descent doesn't matter. No one is a paceline is looking to move left until they get to the front, do their pull, and roll off. Stay where you are, let the faster riders go around you OH HELL NO. No one will ever be expecting someone at the front of a paceline to just slow down and not roll off. That's downright dangerous advice, and very likely to be the direct cause of a multi-bike crash at speed. Jun 16 at 18:22
  • @WeiwenNg But that will work only after it's downright obvious to everyone that the paceline has broken up. And the rider on the front is going to be the last to know. Jun 16 at 18:27
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    @AndrewHenle Which is precisely why you don't try to run pacelines on a descent.
    – Mohair
    Jun 16 at 18:45
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    @Mohair When you get a UCI-sanctioned cycling license and actually do mass-start races THEN you can lecture about the "reality" of riding fast in groups. Until then, you are giving DANGEROUS advise because, frankly, you don't know what the hell you're talking about. Jun 16 at 21:11

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